I read with interest the post “Are wives supposed to submit to their husbands?” and the ensuing and intelligent comments. I couldn’t jump in at the time, as I was out of the country, but considering especially that today’s readings at mass included this passage, I thought I would comment now with a new post.
Certainly, I agree with JPII that a mutual submission in Christ (Eph 5:21 “Being subject to one another, in the fear of Christ” [Douay-Rheims] or “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” [NAB])—the passage preceding the ones about the relative roles of husband and wife (Eph 5 22-32)—is the key to interpreting the subsequent passages. Only this interpretation can do justice to the equality of persons, and to the truth about each person, as we stand before Christ, created, redeemed, and called to glory.
Incidentally, even in Castii Conubii, where the man is still described more traditionally as the “head,” whereas the woman is “the heart” and “may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love,” there is a prior, foundational (Paragraphs 24-25), and (later) reiterated stress on equality first, as the context in which to read the passages about the different roles. Moreover, the different roles imply different and complementary priorities, of head and heart, priorities of both man and of woman. In this sense, JPII’s emphasis on equality and complementarity is anticipated already by Pius XI, though JPII certainly goes further in developing the teaching and in concrete explanation and phenomenological description. Pius XI says:
24. This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense, as the Roman Catechism teaches, be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.
25. By this same love it is necessary that all the other rights and duties of the marriage state be regulated as the words of the Apostle: "Let the husband render the debt to the wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband," express not only a law of justice but of charity.
However, my main purpose not being exegesis, I wanted to acknowledge a theme which came up numerous times in the comments to Katie’s article: How to interpret the Pauline passages about headship? Is there some mysterious sense to St. Paul’s words here which still retain a deep and true meaning, regardless of how badly they might have been interpreted in the past? Patrick, Devra, Scott, Roz and others all grapple with this. Are these passages now to be simply reduced to absolutely nothing but “mutual submission in Christ?” Is any more than this just prejudiced and time-bound error in the sacred text, to be thrown out like any implication of acceptance of slavery? (Of course, as far as I know, slavery was never explicitly espoused in the NT the way headship was.) It would seem that something more, and something more mysterious, is in play here. Katie herself implies this when she says:
Now, none of this is to suggest that there are no important differences between the sexes in marriage, or that there's no meaningful way to speak of the woman as the heart of the home, while the man is the head of the home.
This sounds more like Casti Conubii than Mulieris Dignitatis. It involves the mystery of different priorities within an equal relationship, as well as the mystery of “first among equals” (in different respects)—perhaps as the Monarchy of the Father has a certain priority within the Trinity or as the Pope is in some sense “first among equals” in reference to the other Patriarchs, Cardinals, and Bishops.
I thought it would be thought-provoking to share on this topic the thoughts of Sheldon Vanauken from his great love-story A Severe Mercy, wherein he describes the history of his love relationship with Jean Davis, his beautiful comrade-lover and wife. Van and Davy, as they called themselves, were already a thoroughly modern couple back in the thirties, when their love began. Their love would be only for two (no children, no room even for God—although this latter changed later) and would be completely unconventional—no traditional roles, not even a regular job—since this would require “separation.” So they lived for years on a small schooner, travelling the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean.
Vanauken describes their relationship in the following passages:
It might be mentioned here that the most spirited feminist of later years could not easily fault a union based on sharing and the Appeal to Love in decision-making, a union where no one exercised authority. We did what was necessary to do—housework or sail-mending—together as a part of sharing: not in the name of women’s rights but in the great name of love.
To hold her in my arms against the twilight and be her comrade forever—this was all I wanted so long as my life should last….
…and this brought us to decision-making—we should decide everything of importance by discussion, discussion until agreement is reached. No laying down the law by anybody, ever.
Why, then marry? …It was not, assuredly, a desire to feel ‘married,’ for we thought of marital attitudes and jokes as destructive of love; and we never did overcome our distaste for the words ‘husband and wife’: we said that we were ‘comrade-lovers’. Perhaps we had a sense that there ought to be a confirmation by ritual of our deep vows.
However, after attending Oxford and meeting C.S. Lewis, they converted to Christianity, much to their own surprise. However, Davy’s conversion was initially much more complete, of the head and of the heart, whereas Van held back and longed in his heart for the old life and the old relationship dedicated to sharing love and beauty together in this world. Van describes a problem here, which he didn’t know how to address:
So Davy went on reading the Bible, and I went on not reading it much. I read other things, novels and mysteries, which she didn’t have time to read. No longer in loyalty to our lover were we reading the same books. How could I say: Stop reading Isaiah and read Margery Allingham? And the old sharing was going in another way. She was becoming wifely. She was accepting St. Paul on women and wives. She seemed to want to be domestic and make things in the kitchen. I was afraid she might actually obey me if I issued a command. There was something very humble and good in her attitude towards me as well as towards Christ. A humble vocation. But it wasn’t like her. I almost wanted a fight.
He doesn’t like at all Davy’s humble submissiveness, though he acknowledges it as good. He doesn’t want any hint of headship or leadership in any way for himself. He feels it as a violation within their relationship. He’s allergic to it and always has been—and he wants Davy to be the same.
Nonetheless, after her death (the “Severe Mercy” of the title, and I’m not giving away any secrets—the reader is aware of her death from the opening Prologue), when he spends a couple of years reviewing every phase of their relationship in loving wonder, thanks, and pain, he concludes the following (italics Vanauken, brackets mine):
One insight from the past, which I might have closed my mind to but for Christianity, was not quite so shocking as it would have been if Davy in that last year or so had not seemed increasingly to accept St. Paul’s dictum on the relationship of husband and wife: that the man is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church. Although we should have fiercely denied it, except perhaps for Davy in that last year, I say that I had exercised a sort of headship—in the sense of an initiatory or leadership role—that was accepted, even desired, by Davy without either of us being aware of it. It had been loving and gentle, all decisions were discussed, there was never a hint of command, and yet, despite the mutual tenderness and deference, it was, I now saw, there: that veiled and loving headship. We had eschewed husbandly authority from the first, Davy was combative and intelligent, we believed everything a modern feminist would have urged: yet something of headship had all along been there. Having known one woman deeply, having myself made every effort to see with a women’s eyes [such that C.S. Lewis even chastises him for going too far in this, saying “Did you want her to feel she had a woman in bed with her?”], I could not now believe that my subtle headship or Davy’s acceptance of it was merely conditioning. Now I wrote to her about it [posthumously], wondering without decision whether, despite all feminist denial, such a relationship were not inbuilt in the creation and effectively denied—which, after all, we, loving deeply, had not been able to do—only at a heavy cost to love.
So, is there a subtle mystery here beyond mere prejudice, beyond even social conditioning, and not just the result of (original) sin--a mystery which still lies in need of further explication? I tend to think so.